Too Many Ways to Help: How Choice Overload Can Affect Climate Change Mitigation Behavior

Reuben Kline, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Behavioral Political Economy, Stony Brook University


From the standpoint of classical rationality, moving from a smaller to a larger choice set can never result in decreased utility: if additional alternatives are not utility enhancing they can simply be discarded. Theories of choice overload, however, demonstrate that boundedly rational individuals do not always respond to changes in the size of the choice space monotonically. We investigate the possibility of a form of “choice overload” in the realm of prosocial choice. Focusing on the context of anthropogenic climate change, we demonstrate that telling people that there are many “ways they can help” could actually lower their belief they can help because the information sets a high standard for how people should behave. In short, giving people many things they could easily do makes it less likely they do anything.

We conducted a two-wave randomized survey experiment using a national sample from Dynata (n = 1,712). In the first wave, we randomly assigned subjects to see a list of either 1, 5, 10, or 20 (non-mutually exclusive) pro-environment behaviors aimed at mitigating climate change. The behaviors were randomly drawn from a set of possible 20 behaviors pre-tested prior to the study on a separate sample to get a rating of how difficult they were to carry out. These behaviors included things like turning off the light when you leave the room, washing hands with cold water and getting a more fuel efficient car.

After receiving their assigned set of potential mitigation behaviors, respondents immediately answered four questions regarding their perception of the efficacy of taking individual action to mitigate climate change. In the second wave of the study, we asked if the respondent had actually engaged in any of the mitigation behaviors that subjects had seen.

Our results indicate that the number of available behaviors has a significant and persistent effect on perceived efficacy, and this effect is non-monotonic. We find that while people have similar levels of efficacy about the possibility of mitigating climate change regardless of whether they received 1, 5 or 10 randomly drawn behaviors, receiving 20 behaviors does have an effect on efficacy. In particular, receiving 20 behaviors leads people to feel significantly less efficacious, but only if the behaviors listed were all easy to perform (based on pre-test evaluation). We theorize that when presented with 20 easy behaviors which they could realistically do every single day, people feel overwhelmed by the number of ways they would need to adjust their lifestyles ­even if each one is markedly simple (i.e. washing hands in cold water).

We find that the effects of our treatment persist well in to the second wave of our study fielded a week later. Consistent with wave 1 results, we find that participants who received 20 easy climate change behaviors took significantly fewer actions. Again, these results suggest that a long set of easy behaviors may be overwhelming largely because a person could (and perhaps should) take all of them.

Collaborators: Talbot Andrews, PhD Candidate, Stony Brook University; Yanna Krupnikov, Associate Professor, Stony Brook University; and John Ryan, Associate Professor, Stony Brook University